On (mostly chicken) stock.
How complicated does homemade stock really need to be?
Something a little different from me today, a bit of bonus content if you will, both because ingredient is seasonal and sometimes it takes a while for me to be able to get my hands on the ingredients required to test each months recipes (so I fear October’s edition may be with you a little late), and also because stock is an ingredient that makes up the very core of our cooking, so naturally ingredient seemed like the right place to share this essay.
Another little bonus for you all today: I’m offering everyone reading this essay 30 days for the subscriber edition of ingredient for free! Follow this link to subscribe and get full access to the ingredient recipe archives + the full October edition of ingredient delivered free to your inbox.
I was standing by the kitchen sink picking the chicken carcass from last nights lemony, sage-scented roast for sandwiches and my mind wandered, as it often does when one is carrying out a ritualistic task, to stock. It is where the leftover bones are destined, I’d just finished reading Alicia Kennedy’s brand new essay on salt1, and together they caused my mind to meander from ingredient quality and the idea that a few good essentials can really transform your cooking to the question of if I’m missing out on something making my homemade chicken and vegetable stocks almost exclusively from leftovers.
While of course fresh is better, I’m not fussed about using whatever is to hand.
It think it has got to be obvious by now that I love proper processes and fancy ingredients, but I’ve always been one of those cooks who keeps both fresh stock and good quality stock cubes (Kallo’s low salt, gluten-free cubes in vegetable, chicken and beef, to be specific) to hand. While of course fresh is better, I’m not fussed about using whatever is to hand.
It was my mother who first taught me to make stock - chicken or turkey leftover from our Christmas bird2, and then later ham when we had bones available - to use as a base for homemade soups. Said stocks were always frozen in 500ml or 1 litre blocks just for soup making, we used stock cubes for everything else. I was shown how to place the leftover bones, and any bits that are not the fatty skin in the bottom of the biggest, bright blue Le Creuset casserole we had, to add in dried bay leaves and black pepper corns, celery, a chopped carrot and a halved onion before topping the whole thing up with cold water for my father to lift (the sheer weight of it was too much for either my or my mothers petite forms) into the bottom warming oven of the AGA to rest overnight, where in the morning it would be cooled, skimmed and frozen.
My stock ritual has not change much: I still slow cook it overnight with the said same ingredients, though usually instead of adding a carrot I add the peelings from said carrot as I’ve usually been making all the trimmings to go with said roast bird, but I do it in the slow cooker. I’ve also now got a recipe for slow cooker vegetable stock in my book One Pan Pescatarian, but for me, making stock is about leeching the very last out of my ingredients and cutting down on waste. I keep it in a big bottle in the fridge door to use wherever stock is called for and tend to freeze leftover bones for later stocks, rather than make an excess and freeze that, but honestly, I think the only recipes I’ve ever written where I call for fresh stock as an essential where stock cubes just won’t cut it (except of course a couple of fish stew recipes also in One Pan Pescatarian, because am I right that the idea of a fish stock cube is rightly terrifying?) is in the gravy for my Swedish Meatballs, and in my recipe for Matzo Ball Soup.
But as an obsessive home cook and a professional writer of recipes, there is one frontier that I’ve not yet crossed: I’ve never made a stock purposely to form the blueprint of an extra special recipe using ingredients that I’d not otherwise class as cheap aromatics like onions, or waste product like chicken bones. And I know I’m probably missing out: I know some of my favourite chefs spend just days using good quality ingredients to make the bases for their stocks and sauces, but there is something in me that can’t just bring myself to use ‘good’ ingredients to make fresh stock. Moving aside from the obvious welfare and production issues behind a £1 packet of supermarket chicken wings, even for such a small price I’ve always seen it as wasteful to use these to make stock, when they could be instead served up as a satisfying lunch option, with the bones then possibly being transferred to the bone bag for a later pot stock. And then look at the stock cubes I do buy: they’re probably the most expensive ones on the shelf of any popular supermarket.
It appears the only stock recipes I’ve bothered to note down to try out at some point are for either fish or shellfish stocks (see above) or for the homemade vegetable stock powder in Anna Jones’ very first book A Modern Way To Eat because doesn’t it sound wonderful?
That is not to say I’ve not read tens, maybe hundreds of stock recipes in my time. If I were to make a proper, rich, chef-style stock using those ingredients I’d not even need a recipe to do so. I know how to do it, I just don’t seem to want to. So what have I actually managed to learn from my extensive collection of cookbooks, technical food manuals and books on culinary science that I’ve digested over the years about stock making if I don’t think I follow any of their advice?
With stock on hand, dinner is always within reach.
Picking up Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the book that has been critically acclaimed as the best book on the science of cooking written in a generation, if not at least the last decade, Samin explains that ‘with stock on hand, dinner is always within reach’ and she suggests that ‘every time you roast a chicken, cut of the neck or the head, feet and wing tips (and even the backbone, when spatchcocking) before salting, and throw them all into the freezer in a plastic bag’ to make stock later. While I wish you luck trying to do this with a British supermarket bird, it does at least familiarise her chicken stock recipe featuring a 50/50 minimum ratio of raw to leftover bones for the home cook.
Diving deeper into my collection, in her beautiful, wonderful book Slow Gizzi Erskine makes many purist stock assertions such as ‘a true home cook understands the importance of really good stock’, that ‘I’m pretty militant about stocks’ and that ‘the best way of getting this (a good stock) is through long, slow cooking go good-quality bones that still have some meat on them and are filled with marrow.’ Happily for me she also states that ‘I also prefer the flavour of a stock which has been left to cool overnight with the bones, before being bought back to the boil and then strained.’ Over the page, her recipe calls for your choice of carcasses - leftover from roasts or raw - or wings as your chicken of choice for stock making, dealers choice.
However I’ve written two cookbooks, and even though I know publishers give these great bastions of food writing more leeway than I’ve yet earned myself, there is a little voice in my mind that asks if choice is indeed an authors preference, or if they’ve simply included a couple of options either to make their recipes more accessible to home cooks, or to appeal to a publisher with an eye on their sales figures?
Frankly, turning to Sybil Kapoor’s excellent science of cooking come recipe book Sight, Smell, Touch, Taste, Sound, her recipe for chicken stock makes me feel more than vaguely stressed. I don’t care that she opens with the statement that ‘as every cook knows, a good stock is essential to creating good food’ alongside the helpful lesson that ‘this is because all stocks, including vegetable stocks, imbue dishes with umami’ because in a world where I’m currently trying to budget for phasing out supermarket chickens for high welfare birds as part of our Sunday roast, there is no way in hell that I’m sacrificing a whole, ‘good-quality’ 1.3kg chicken for a yield of 2.5 litres of stock.
There is an argument that I balk at this because of the way I’ve been brought up: I’ve always been overly stressed about food waste, something I’m sure that has been passed down the family from an ashkenazi Eastern European fear of scarcity instilled by immigrants to a generation who lived through the rationing of the Second World War.
And well, I mentioned that my stock making journey started as a teenager in my parents AGA: the most recent Mary Berry AGA cookbook, The Complete AGA Cookbook, lists as well as a vegetable and fish stock a ‘Good Beef Stock’, ‘Light Stock’ made with chicken, turkey or veal bones, a ‘Family Stock’ made from leftover chicken carcasses and leftover root veggies (it is unclear if these should be cooked or not) and a ‘Game Stock’ again made with carcasses, this time also including the giblets. So perhaps it is not my family history that has instilled this in me after all, but perhaps the cooks I’ve grown up learning from? A cursory phone call to check my copy of Nigella Lawson’s seminal work How To Eat literally kicks off an essay on stock with the words: ‘Do not throw away the chicken carcass after eating the chicken.’ She’s a chicken carcass stock maker, rather than a fresh meat type of cook (with an emphasis on the word cook here, not chef), too.
In the kitchen I’ve always cooked by a ‘do the best you can and don’t stress about the rest’ mentality.
So am I stressing about nothing? I think so. In the kitchen I’ve always cooked by a ‘do the best you can and don’t stress about the rest’ mentality, and while it is my job to worry about such things, I think actually what I should be doing here is patting myself on the back. Yes, there is an argument that my food knowledge and education should encourage me to use the very best, to make fresh stocks with good ingredients, because really I’d not be wasting them: they’re contributing to a much better final dish, the same way the expensive vinegars, salts and olive oils I buy make all the difference. But honestly, I do go above and beyond, I do make my own stock, and seeing how other people do it, for a home cook like me who cooks to feed my friends and family, and so I can write recipes to help other people like me do so too, I don’t think we should be letting cookbooks and food media tell us what we’re doing is not good enough. Sure, I might bite the bullet and try out one of those elaborate (and still in my mind wasteful) chef stocks one day, but it is honestly okay if I don’t. And it is totally okay if you don’t either.
So, a little essay from me this Monday afternoon, a little food for thought if you will. If you enjoyed this, don’t forget to subscribe either to the free version of ingredient, or to the paid version where for just £4/ month you’ll get access to three new and exclusive recipes every month, full access to the ingredient recipe archive, and the chance to support independent food writing and recipe development - mine!
Essential companion reading to this essay is her recent essay ‘On Bones’. Okay scrap that, her entire newsletter is the only newsletter on Substack I consistently always open and read cover to cover.